Local authorities and Red Cross volunteers on Crete are racing to prepare shelter and food for hundreds of immigrants on a crippled freighter being towed to safety by a Greek navy frigate.
A day after it suffered engine failure in international waters, the 250ft Baris cargo ship carrying 700 men, women and children trying to enter Europe – one of the largest boat-loads of the kind in recent years – is being towed at a speed of just over 3mph.
It is expected to arrive well after nightfall today at the port town of Ierapetra in southern Crete.
The coastguard said initial indications suggest passengers include Syrians and Afghans heading for Italy. It is unclear where the Kiribati-flagged ship had set sail from, or when.
About 80% of immigrants arriving by sea at Greece’s eastern Aegean Sea islands are Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, according to the Doctors Without Borders humanitarian organisation’s Greek branch.
Tens of thousands of people risk the hazardous journey every year, paying smuggling gangs to carry them over in usually unseaworthy craft ranging from toy dinghies to ageing rust-buckets. Most end up in Italy.
According to Amnesty International data, since the start of 2014 more than 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing – about 1.7% of the estimated 150,000 who made it across.
Ierapetra local authorities and volunteer groups are preparing an indoor basketball stadium to provide temporary shelter for the migrants, and are collecting food, blankets, mattresses and toiletries.
“Our main concern is to offer them preliminary care, to register them and to find, as soon as possible, somewhere for them to stay under the best conditions possible,” said Red Cross volunteer organiser Nikos Nestorakis.
The Baris lost engine power yesterday about 30 nautical miles off the south-eastern tip of Crete.
Greek officials said today there are no reports of severe health problems or food and water shortages on board. A pregnant woman was airlifted by helicopter to an island hospital.
Once near the Cretan coast, the vessel is expected to anchor offshore but it is unclear if the migrants will immediately be ferried to land.
Just days before the freighter ran into trouble, 228 Syrian refugees heading for Italy were rescued from a crippled ship off Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.
EU regulations stipulate that refugees seeking asylum must apply in the first EU country they arrive at.